Perhaps the defining characteristic of democracy is its supposed commitment the the provision of equality. By their very nature, human societies are rife with inequality and disadvantage, whether by result of personal inadequacy or a simple roll of the dice. Education, at its heart, is thought to be the remedy to this, the ‘grand equalizer’ that overcomes the misfortunes of birth and gives everyone an equal opportunity to succeed.
While that may summarize our current understanding of education, it was not always thus. The modern idea of ‘public’ education arose, not out of some egalitarian ideal, but out of the elitist ideals of the Enlightenment. Common people, so the argument went, were uncivilized, ignorant, unwashed savages, and needed to be instructed to become civilized and ‘proper’ members of society. It was not so much about a belief that education was the key to equality as it was that education was the key to civilization; more accurately, it was the belief that education was a way to bring the clearly much more enlightened and worthy views of the philosophes to the masses.
So we see that education was, in a way, a form of social control – plain and simple, it was an excuse for the elites to impose their worldviews on the common people and to achieve their own goals. As public education was just beginning, the masses weren’t necessarily taught the same things rich people might have learned in their own schools – governments, once they took control of education, saw value not in ‘enlightening’ common folk but in building good workers, and so early education focused around the value of hard work and honest labour rather than teaching the spirit of questioning and inquisition we take for granted today. We see this manipulation of education far too often, even today – who has not heard the threat educational brainwashing poses, or shook their head upon hearing the things the Taliban taught to children? Education, on its, own, is a way to teach people ideas – nothing more, nothing less.
So understanding that education simply serves as a means to further an agenda, we have to ask the question: what should that agenda be? This question lies at the heart of education, and, we can suppose, the heart of a democracy. A system that declares itself built on equality can scarcely be legitimate without it, so education must somehow serve to truly be that ‘grand equalizer’ we make it out be. So, then…how?
We must refine the aims of education. There are two competing views on this: that education should teach people life skills and the information necessary to be successful in the modern economy, and that education should teach the more amorphous ‘liberal arts’ – the arts of questioning, wondering, and thinking for oneself. If the goal of education is to achieve equality, we must educate in the way that leads to the most potential for equality – but in which direction that leads, there is no consensus.
Just like you, we’re still learning. We don’t have all the answers. If we wish to have a democracy, and all the trappings we associate with it(prosperity, freedom, equality), education is necessary for the preservation of civilization and for the relatively equal footing it provides. But more than that is a mystery. And so we turn the question over to you, dear reader. For the society we believe in, we need a strong foundation – but the question is, what do we want that foundation to look like?